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Net opens new doors for ham radio

Mar 15, 2005

Roger Varley - More from this author

Ask Jack Kirkby about amateur, or ham, radio and he'll respond with a dizzying lexicon of acronyms and multisyllabic terminology to describe how modern technology has been adopted and adapted by ham enthusiasts.

Terms such as propagation hops, ionospheric absorption and frequency bands are part of the ham operator's jargon, he explained.

As treasurer of the Thornhill Radio Amateurs Club (TRAC), the terms come easily to the Richmond Hill resident. Mr. Kirkby, 68, has been a ham radio operator since 1967 and has owned an advanced operator's licence for years.

But one thing he doesn't know is why radio hobbyists are called hams.

"I've never seen an explanation, but the term goes back to the turn of the 20th century," he said. "No one seems to be able to pin down the source."

Although radio amateurs seem destined to always be called hams, Mr. Kirkby said another major tradition of the hobbyists seems to be headed the way of the 8-track.

From the beginning, amateur radio operators around the world were required to know and use Morse code before they could receive their licence, which in Canada comes under the jurisdiction of Industry Canada.

"Morse is a skill that's dying," he said. "It is no longer required for a basic licence in Canada, but it's still a prerequisite for a second-level licence. Now there's pressure to scrap the Morse requirement all together."

He said some of the pressure comes from ham operators themselves, who are concerned the Morse requirement is an impediment to attracting young people to the hobby.

"It's supposed to be amateur radio, not professional," he said. "If it's too technical, you're taking away the amateurism."

On the other hand, he points out, the CB (Citizens Band) radio craze in Canada and the United States "was chaotic" and there are fears in some quarters the same chaos would result in amateur radio if Morse is dropped. Nevertheless, he said, five European nations have already dropped the requirement.

Mr. Kirkby prefers conversing verbally with contacts around the world instead of using Morse.

"You can hear the inflections in their voices, tell how they feel," he said.

Although it would seem ham radio is unnecessary in these days of almost instant online communication, the Internet and related technologies have helped open up a new range of options for hobbyists, Mr. Kirkby said.

Using their radio setups in conjunction with computers and sound cards, hobbyists transmit in different types of digital mode. Some websites allow operators to see on their computer screen where a signal is on the bandwidth, allowing them to hone in on the signal faster.

There's also the Internet radio Linking Project, which allows hams who can't afford or don't have the room to put up a large antenna to use the net to hook up to repeater stations all over the world.

"Some oldtimers say that's not ham radio, but it's where we're going," he said.

Adapting other technologies to their hobby is nothing new for amateur radio operators. Hams used to snatch up old, used teletype machines, which enabled them to make printouts of radio traffic, he said.

For Mr. Kirkby, the initial attraction to ham radio was the adventure, the excitement of events.

"It was marvelous to tap out CQ, CQ (seek you) and have someone halfway around the world contact you," he said. "Hams used to scan the bands to see what was going on and to see if ships at sea were in trouble."

During the Vietnam war, when he received his licence, hams would pass messages from soldiers to their families in the United States or sometimes patch the calls through on a telephone line.

The public service side of ham radio still calls. TRAC is part of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, acting as a third line of communications for municipal and police authorities in times of emergency.

Another attraction of ham radio is the technology, Mr. Kirkby said.

Since the advent of the space age, hams have regularly been in contact with astronauts and crew members aboard the space station MIR. Several satellites are dedicated strictly to ham operators.

"A satellite comes up on the horizon every 15 minutes," he said. "Certain websites give the times and angles and you can track them with a hand-held radio. Many hams are well educated in the technical field and in engineering."

But being a ham doesn't necessarily mean being closeted in a small room all the time.

For example, last September TRAC set up on board the York Durham Heritage Railway, which runs between Uxbridge and Stouffville, and made more than 100 contacts, including contacts in Mexico, Hungary and Italy.

Every Canada Day, ham operators go out with portable equipment to see how many contacts they can make on International Field Day.

TRAC meets at Thornhill Secondary School on Tuesday nights from September to June, Mr. Kirkby said, with membership made up of everyone from high school students to retired people.

"It's not necessarily an expensive hobby," he said. "There's lots of good used gear on the market and I've never got stung using used equipment."

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For Jack Kirkby, the initial attraction to ham radio was the adventure. The hobby's evolving technology helps hold his interest.

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